Sunday, June 13, 2010

Clichés Are Your Friend

I think every writing blog out there, every author and every professional in the literary movement will tell you to avoid clichés like the plague. I've seen it often enough. I've got a different view on the matter, however.

Embrace them! You must know your enemy to vanquish them.

I take a cliché, I happily apply it. Then I mess it up so bad you don't know which way is up or down. (Alright, I might be prone to exaggeration) I'll examplify, because I find general statements mostly unhelpful when it comes to actually doing something.

A young woman starts her new job. She's pretty, and so is her boss. The boss seem so many miles above her, but she falls in love. Boss-employée relationship ensue.

Everyone who recognise the plot, raise your hands.

So what now? You take the boss, make her female and 10 years older. Tada!

Let's try one about characters:

Sexy, social, laughing blonde enchants every guy around her and acts like a bitch towards every girl who comes close. The blonde is empty-headed, and obviously slept her way to her position. She wouldn't know a fresh opinion if it so sat on her pretty nose.

Seen it before? Oh, sorry, did I forget to tell you she's a rebel infiltrator, sabotaging the mission? My bad.

Clichés are fun. If you know them, it's so easy to trod all over them, to surprise people because readers EXPECT you to follow the clichés. Just be careful - they might throw your story down before they realise you aren't actually being cliché.

I now want your examples! Let me know how you took a cliché and wrought it to something original.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Skeleton in the Story

As I couldn't think of a new topic, a friend suggested a post about plots. Face it, plots are my weak point - at least coming up with a main plot. But I know the importance of having an actual main plot.

But what is a main plot? In abstract terms it's the skeleton that keeps up your story. On that plot you can hang the flesh (characters), the muscles (the action), the subplots (the brain) and the descriptions (clothes).

I just made those metaphors up. Or are those similes? Never mind. The main plot! In a specific example of what can be seen as the main plot, let's look at a few examples from literature and films.

Lord of the rings - the quest to defeat Evil
Streetdance - to compete and win the british streetdance competition
Transformers - find the Cube
Sahara - find the ironclad ship/the plague source
Pretty Woman - prostitute getting off the streets
Runaway Bride - Writing a piece about a woman who deserts men at the altar

Why is it even important to have a main plot? Because it's the red thread that ties everything else together. You need a focus when writing, something that the readers can hold on to when you swivel out into the bush (those are the fun moments, right?). Personally, these main plots usually come AFTER I got the story. My story is the characters, the subplots. It's not like this for everyone. Some might even get a "duh" reaction to this post because the main plot is their starting point and therefore natural.

But the main plot doesn't need to be what the story is about. My main plots include "the universe rule is threatened by rebels" (the story is about love beyond the norms), finding a lost familiar (it's about love and guilt and facing hardships instead of running from them) and a detective looking for a missing person (about the good in people despite the darkness around them).

I might be rambling, and I feel I'm not very clear on why you need it, but that doesn't keep me from being certain an overarching structure such as this is vital for any story. Without it, you can't have a beginning and an end. You can keep adding small plots and events forever - it's like a real life!

A writing teacher once taught me how to write a short story by the suggestion to look at it as a small piece of a cake. Novels are the same - just includes a larger piece. No matter how much I'd like to, I've never been able to gobble down a whole cake. If I did, I'd probably be sick of it. But getting a small glance out of a life, that's delicious.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Egocentric and Chasing Accomplishment

Apparently I'm egocentric and chase accomplishment. I've drawn this conclusion from a comment on Rachelle Gardner's blog. Not her words, but someone reacting to them.

The comment that spurred my conclusion had the following phrasing:

"i see three reasons it might be more important to publish than to be happy with what you've written:

1. you make a living by writing.
2. you honestly believe your book will help people.
3. you are egocentric and chase accomplishment."

The original question from Rachelle Gardner was: "What's more important? Being happy with your work, or getting it published?"

I've experience a lot of anguish about getting published lately. It has lessened somewhat, but the fact is that I still can't be happy with my work unless it is read. For me, getting published seems to be the only way of getting people to read what I write. At least more people than 2-3 friends! They're great, all of them, but I'd like to reach more people.

So yes, unless something changes and lots of people randomly starts reading my work through other means than me getting published, then publishing is more important than being happy with what I've written because I'm not happy with what I've written unless someone reads it. Is that roundabout and complicated enough for you? I hope you followed my logic anyway. Which leads to the conclusion which kicked off this blog post.

Not that I don't want my writing to help people - but it's fiction after all. It can help people, but I don't think that what was the commenter meant. And I can make my living another way - I've always planned to do so. That leaves reason no 3 as the only reason I feel the way I do.

There you have it. Irrefutable logic from the realm of the WWW. I wish it didn't hurt, but it does, because I know that in those dark evenings when I doubt myself, I will believe the commenter is right.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Step-by-Step - Character Descriptions

Alright, I'm hoping I'll say something intelligent that will help people in their writing endeavours. So, I'm doing something like a tutorial, I guess. Let me know if you have other ideas or any demands on what I should write about next time!


Original version:

The man walked through the door, dragging his feet behind him. He wore glasses and his dark blonde hair hung over them. He had brown eyes and there was a scar on his right ankle. The clothes he wore were simple jeans and a t-shirt. He had no bag but he held a book in his hand.

This isn't too bad, right? But it can be better!

Tips 1: Be Specific (which doesn't mean exhaustive!)

Roger walked through the door, dragging his feet behind him. He wore a pair of Christian Dior glasses and the rat-coloured hair hung over them. In his hands were a copy of The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France.

Imagine your writing as a caricature portrait - choose the traits that best describe your character (or the ones important for what is happening or will happen) and skip the rest. Readers have imagination too. However, be careful to not "forget" important traits, just to later describe them. Readers can easily be annoyed if you suddenly say something that breaks their idea of your character. And that a man carries that kind of book raises questions about why. And readers wondering things (i.e. wanting to find them out) is a very good thing.

Tips 2: Use the Right Verb

Roger stumbled over the threshold. A pair of Christian Dior glasses balanced on his nose and made a constant wrinkle in the rat-coloured hair at his ears. He pressed a copy of The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France to his chest.

To say "stumbled" indirectly says he wasn't exactly picking his feet up from the ground, and gives another kind of atmosphere. It makes it an awkward moment. That the glasses "balanced" instead of being worn shows a certain precariousness. All in all, you can give a lot of atmosphere and suspense if you choose another verb when describing a character (or landscape for that matter). To say "pressing to one's chest" instead of "hold" gives the impression of a shy character - further deepening the stumbled/awkward/dragging his feet thing.

Tips 3: Tie It to Action/Backstory

Roger stumbled over the threshold, almost dropping the Christian Dior glasses that balanced on his nose. There was a constant wrinkle in the rat coloured-hair where the glasses clung to his ears; his mother had always tried to smooth it out. He pressed The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France, determined not to lose it again.

Can't you just tell his overprotective mother was an annoying sweetheart? And where did he lose the book, and why doesn't he want to do it again? The fact that he's almost dropping the glasses justifies that you mention them and erases the "information dump" feel.

Take Notice 1:
An important thing to remember however is that the description is always an observation based on someone observing! What is noticed depends on the person looking at it - I wouldn't know a pair of Christian Dior glasses if they chewed on my butt. A man is likely to notice some parts of female anatomy more than others. Etc. Etc. If you got a detective noting down the people coming inside, he might just do it in the original way I wrote.

Take Notice 2:
If the observer and the person being observed know each other, they aren't likely to notice as much. I barely see if my friends have changed hair cut, or have new clothes, or what colour their hair is. Also, I sure as hell don't sit there thinking through everything they've done in their lives so the reader can find that out. So please don't introduce a character that way.

Thanks for your time and feel free to come with opinions and questions!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Deadly Writing Sins

I have thrown down a lot of books lately already when reaching around page 10. These includes Steinbeck, Sue Grafton and others. Here's a few reasons, and tips of what not to do.

1. Don't Preach.

Unless, of course, your character goes around preaching to everyone around them. Then it's your character preaching, not you.

(There's also a difference between Preaching and Having a Meaning. It's the difference between a blaring headline saying STARVING CHILDREN IN UGANDA and the black and white picture with the skeleton-thin baby looking blankly out into the desert)

2. Don't POV shift.

Alright, if you're writing Harlequin, you can POV shift in the middle of a scene. I only read those for the historical swoons and the similes such as "the motorcycle felt like one gigantic d***do".

3. Don't close me out.

If you're putting the reader some distance away from the reader, you lost me already.

4. Don't use cardboard characters.

If you can replace the characters' names with The Incurable Bachelor, the Promiscuous Bitch, the Shy and Secretive Professor, you're probably guilty.

5. Don't puke out characters on me

Unless your POV character is... wait, scrap that. There's never a reason to take up several, or even one, paragraph describing exactly how a character looks, what they like doing, what they've worked with and how their childhood was. Not the main character, not the other characters. I read to get to know them. Start with this, and I don't need to finish the book. In fact, I can just scan the first few pages in the bookshop and not buy it at all.

6. Don't lose track

If you've already have one character suspecting your character of something, don't make a big scene of him being all shocked when suspecting this later (and again!). Also, don't have your character reading the name on her borrowed suit, if she'll seconds later will wear her own spare suit. That just proves you aren't making an effort (get yourself a good editor/beta reader).

7. Don't make everyone gorgeous

Alright, I do this myself. But it's annoying when I read it. *vouching to stop*

8. Don't write a genre I don't like

Hey, I said it was about me. This is just a reminder that everything is about personal taste - if I don't like your book, it might not be about you after all. Though a damn good book makes me read any genre.

9. Hide my cookies

I like my sweets, but if you're going to drown me in every bit of the character's personality up front, I'll have nothing to look forward to. Dangle them ahead! Make me wonder "why did he say/do that?"

Alright, can't think of more Deadly Writing Sins. Feel free to add some yourselves through the comment section!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A book I forgot, and always will remember

The summer of 2007, I lost my beloved dog. She was 11 but in perfect health. Then she suddenly fell ill. I went to the vet and they gave her medicine. However, late evening the same day she became much worse. When we called the vet station, they said they were already closing and the nearest hospital that might be able to help was many hours away.

I decided to hope for the best, or at least let her die at home instead of in a bumpy car ride.

She became completely paralysed somewhere around midnight. I sat with her all night, perhaps slept for an hour or so, lying on a mattress always touching her. But most of that very, very long night, I sat with my back against the wall, one hand constantly caressing that beautiful head. In the other, I held a book.

I don't remember much about that book. I think it was a short story anthology. I don't remember the author/s/. I don't remember the title. I don't think I'd even recognise it if I picked it up one day in the future. It might have been glorious, it might have been mostly crap. It could have been intelligent, romantic, exciting, sad. The important thing is that it kept me company during the worst hours I've ever experienced.

So for all writers out there: sometimes it's not about being wittiest, most romantic, original, or even have a great writing technique.

Sometimes it's just about helping someone pass the time when they need it the most.